Asia Perspective: Brewing Success in Singapore a Cup at a Time

Singapore, although a tiny island state, is a sophisticated consumer marketplace for almost any and every conceivable product from computers, electronic appliances, fashion, finance, and, of course, food and beverage. With Singapore’s multiracial and multicultural melting pot, you can easily find food and drink from every culture, at one or more corners.

For most Singaporeans, we would drink up the local coffee going for just U.S. 40 cents, often called kopi (which is coffee in Hokkien, one of the pre-dominant Chinese spoken dialects in Singapore), in one of the kopitiams (which means “coffee shop”). For the more discerning coffee drinker, the spectrum of coffee available in Singapore ranges from the affordable kopi, to more esoteric blends found in mega café joints from U.S. restaurants, specialty, or themed cafes. The prices per cup can go as high as U.S. $10 or thereabouts.

Mega coffee chains have abounded in Singapore for around a decade, and many people working in the financial district can be seen holding such branded cups walking briskly about. Against this competitive backdrop of cheap local coffee and mass-market mega coffee franchises, a late entrant emerged in Singapore to thrive — Gloria Jean’s Coffees. Gloria Jean’s won the International Franchisor of the Year award in 2006, given by the Franchising & Licensing Association Singapore. I met with James Donald, managing director of Gloria Jean’s Coffees for this discussion.

Seamus Phan: What makes Gloria Jean’s unique in comparison to the mega-coffee joints, and the local Singapore coffee shops?

James Donald: Gloria Jean’s was founded in 1979 and is a well-established brand that now boasts over 950 stores worldwide. Gloria Jean’s has built its brand around quality, the drinks are much superior quality other premium brands, which grow the segment through quantity of stores rather than quality of product. In my opinion, the local kopi presents a functional low-cost product and also as an introduction to drinking coffee, made from robusta (an inferior quality bean). This contrast with 100 percent Arabica espresso and fresh milk found at Gloria Jean’s. We believe discerning consumers will eventually seek out and enjoy gourmet espresso coffee such as ours.

With the mega-coffee chains being the earlier entrants to the Singapore scene, and the pervasiveness of the local affordable kopi culture, how does Gloria Jean’s succeed?

The other coffee chains have been developing the coffee market in Singapore over the past decade with a bias toward awareness-building and market-share development, rather than a bias toward quality and education. The Singapore market is now able to have the market driven by quality and accessibility, which means that we can deliver a better quality coffee while making it accessible to consumers, without trying to have the most number of stores. We are also seeing consumers outgrowing the local kopi to enjoy and savor our coffee, rather than simply consuming a basic product.

What specific tactics or strategies do you employ to great effect?

One of our best campaigns that we do in every store every day is “trialing,” when we get consumers to try a new product. Often they would immediately notice our product offers more flavor over a competing similar product, and would ultimately enjoy this product at our cafes.

Is Gloria Jean’s a socially conscious enterprise?

Gloria Jean’s Coffees International supports many international charities such as Opportunity International and Mercy Ministries, along with being able to have certified Rain Forest Alliance that protect many of the growers and harvesters of coffee. In Singapore we support “Make A Wish” Foundation, which grants wishes to children with life-threatening diseases. We will be holding a charity weekend where a percentage of our stores’ sales will be donated to “Make A Wish” along with having charity boxes and merchandise available in our stores supporting this nonprofit. We also are quite involved with Singapore schools whereby we can offer students work experience, courses in retailing, and barista skills, along with helping university students complete their case studies based on our concept.

Any parting wisdom to share with our readers?

It all starts with a good quality coffee bean, roasted for its intended use, packaged to secure its quality and flavor, ground for the intended use, and then brewed accordingly. A misstep in any one of these elements and you get a less-than-perfect cup. Retailing coffee is ensuring that the above elements are adhered to and that each cup has the same amount of dedication and passion, one cup at a time. Drinking coffee should be an event that is not rushed, to thoroughly enjoy and savor the product.

By Seamus Phan

Based in Singapore, Seamus Phan is
one of Asia’s leading thinkers and practitioners
in business leadership, Internet security, and marketing.